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Addressing Paranoia in CounsellingAddressing Paranoia in Counselling

Retrieved from Issue 346 of Institute Inbrief 20/01/2021

Paranoia: Definition and levels

When a person believes that others are “out to get them”, trying to stalk or harm them, or paying excessive attention to them for no reason, they may be experiencing paranoia. Occurring in many mental health conditions, paranoia is most often present in psychotic disorders. It involves intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts, most often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy (Mental Health America, n.d.). It can be a symptom of illnesses such as schizophrenia, brief psychosis, paranoid personality, psychotic depression, mania with psychotic features, delusional disorders, or substance abuse (chronic or momentary) (Barron, 2016).

Mental health experts have identified three levels of paranoia:

  1. Paranoid personality disorder (PPD): Characterised by odd or eccentric ways of thinking, PPD involves an unrelenting mistrust and suspicion of others when there is no reason to be suspicious. It is one of the personality disorders in the DSM-5’s Cluster A, along with schizoid and schizotypal personality disorders. Thought to be the mildest form of paranoia, a person with PPD may still be able to function in relationships, employment, and social activities. The onset is typically in early adulthood and is more common in men than in women.
     
  2. Delusional (paranoid) disorder: Found in the DSM-5 chapter, “Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders”, this is a condition in which an individual holds one major false belief or delusion; it will often be an implausible but not bizarre delusion. A delusional disorder typically occurs without any other signs of mental illness. So a person might think that others are talking behind their back if they have a persecutory delusion, or believe that they need immediate medical attention for a (non-existent) medical problem if they have a somatic delusion. This condition is slightly more common in women than men.
     
  3. Schizophrenia with bizarre delusions: People with this condition do not function well in society and need consistent treatment (Sunrise House, 2018; WebMD, 2018).This is the most severe form of paranoia, involving bizarre delusions without basis, such as that aliens are trying to abduct them, or that an unseen enemy is removing their internal organs and replacing them with others’ organs.


This article is about Levels (1) and (2), the paranoid personality disorder (PPD) and delusional disorder, which you may encounter more commonly, either in your client or the client’s partner.

Identifying paranoia

We have several options for finding out what characteristics should be called “paranoid”: we can assess how we experience the person — how we describe them and what they evoke in us — and/or we can run with DSM-5 descriptions, which outline the clinical symptoms we can observe specifically with the paranoid personality disorder and delusional disorder. Let’s do both.

Descriptions of the paranoid person

Joe Navarro, who has written extensively about mental disorders, asked those who had either lived with or been victimised by paranoid personality types to describe this personality type from their experiences. Here is the list of some of their words:

“Angry, anxious, apprehensive, combative, complainer, contrarian, critical, delusional, demanding, difficult, distrustful, disturbed, eccentric, fanatic, fearful, fixated, fussy, guarded, hard-headed, inhospitable, intense, irrational, know-it-all, menacing, mentally rigid, moralistic, obsessed, odd, offensive, opinionated, sensitive, peculiar, pedantic, quarrelsome, questioning, rigid, scary, strict, stubborn, suspicious, tense, threatening, tightly-wound, touchy, unforgiving, unhappy, vindictive, wary, watchful, withdrawn” (Navarro, 2016).

What they evoke in us:

Experiencing a relationship with someone described by such intense words as those above cannot fail to bring forth a reaction in us. Laurel Nowak (2018) outlines the common feelings evoked by paranoid individuals in those with whom they are in relationship. She talks about: “feeling weighed down, negative, stressed, isolated from the people and activities you used to enjoy, and like you’re walking on eggshells”. Some have noted that it can feel to the other person like they are not being seen — ever — for who they truly are. The exaggerated negative spin on events or in response to statements occurs in the context of relating which lacks tenderness, humour, or comfort (Navarro, 2016). While these authors are describing feelings evoked in intimate relationships with paranoid individuals, they could have been talking about how therapists feel when faced with a client with this condition. Dealing with such a person eats away at the most robust sense of happiness and self-esteem. Here are the DSM-5 symptoms.

Paranoid Personality Disorder: DSM-5 symptoms description

According to the DSM-5, there are two primary diagnostic criteria for Paranoid Personality Disorder, of which Criterion A has seven sub-features. Four of these must be present to warrant a diagnosis of PPD:

Criterion A is: Global mistrust and suspicion of others’ motives which commences in adulthood. The seven sub-features of Criterion A are:

  1. Belief others are using, lying to, or harming them, without apparent evidence thereof
  2. Doubts about the loyalty and trustworthiness of friends and associates
  3. Inability to confide in others due to the belief that their confidence will be betrayed
  4. Interpretation of ambiguous or benign remarks as hurtful or threatening
  5. Holding grudges (being unforgiving of insults, injuries, or slights)
  6. In the absence of objective evidence, belief that their reputation or character are being assailed by others; retaliation in some manner
  7. Being jealous and suspicious without cause that intimate partners are being unfaithful.


Criterion B is that the above symptoms will not be during a psychotic episode in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depressive disorder with psychotic features (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Delusional Disorder: DSM-5 definition and types

According to the DSM-5, this condition is characterised by at least one month of delusions but no other psychotic symptoms. Delusions are false beliefs based on incorrect inference about external reality that persist despite the evidence to the contrary; these beliefs are not ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture. In delusional disorder (a moderate level of paranoia), a person experiences non-schizophrenic (i.e., not bizarre) delusions, such as that they are that they are being spied on. Because only thoughts are affected, a person with a delusional disorder can act normal and function in everyday life, although they may display paranoia or other symptoms related to their delusion. The five types of delusions people with this disorder have are:

  1. Erotomanic, where there is a belief that a person with higher social or financial standing (such as the president or a movie star) is in love with them; it can lead to stalking and obsession.
     
  2. Grandiose, involving the false belief that the person has a special power or ability not shared by anyone else (such as that they are extremely lucky and will always win at the casino).
     
  3. Jealous: a mistaken belief that a current or former loved one is unfaithful or even harmful. Paranoia about the loved one’s words or actions can be a symptom of these delusions.
     
  4. Persecutory, in which the common sense of the paranoia is that someone is out to get the individual, because the person believes they are being threatened, mistreated, or that they will be harmed in the future.
     
  5. Somatic: a delusion in which the individual believes that they have an illness, disability or physical defect (Sunrise House, 2018; Mental Health America, n.d.; Bourgeois, 2017).


Treating and coping with paranoia

For the therapist

First, we must note the common advice: a person suffering from either PPD or a delusional disorder needs to seek professional help, although most such individuals do not believe that they are paranoid; rather, they think they are perceptive, noticing things that no one else sees. In this sense, it can be difficult to get such a person to therapy, as the condition tends to be ego syntonic. If such an individual turns up in your therapy rooms, however, note that a referral to a medical doctor is in order to determine if medication is needed.

Medication generally is not a major focus of treatment for PPD; therapy is. However, medications, such as anti-anxiety, antidepressant, or anti-psychotic drugs, might be prescribed if the person’s symptoms are extreme, or if he or she also suffers from an associated psychological problem, such as anxiety or depression (WebMD, 2018).

With delusional disorders, the diagnosed individual begins a combination of medication and psychotherapy. The anti-psychotic medication helps the individual improve enough to be able to understand reality and the need for therapeutic help. In milder cases, the individual may receive anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants, which allows them to undergo therapy, where they learn coping skills, how to recognise delusions as false, and how to manage stress or difficult feelings. Hospitalisation may sometimes be indicated to stop the person from harming themselves or others during violent delusions (Sunrise House, 2018).

As the condition affects the client’s thought patterns and beliefs, it can be worked with effectively using cognitive behavioural therapy, which transforms the unrealistic, maladaptive thoughts by replacing them with more helpful, realistic adaptive thoughts. In addition, some therapists have observed that psychodynamic work, such as object relations, can help paranoid clients look into reasons for becoming mistrustful and suspicious which arise from early childhood relationships (Everyday Health, n.d.).

You might be asking, “Wait a minute; chief symptoms are a tendency to be suspicious and an inability to trust. How, then, can a therapist make any reasonable headway with such a client, given that trust is the basis for any solid therapeutic alliance?” If you twigged to this issue, congratulations; you have nailed the problem: how to keep the paranoid client in therapy long enough for enough trust to be built so that real progress can be made. Building trust is where the challenge is, no matter what modality is being used with the client.

To help a client in relationship with a person living with paranoia

You are likely to see the partner of a person acting paranoid. Once it is established that some form of paranoia is indeed the diagnosis, some clear guidelines exist for helping the partner. Some of the following tips also hold true for therapists working with this client population.

Setting boundaries. The paranoid person needs compassion and understanding, true, but that does not equate to acceptance of poor treatment on the grounds that the person has a disorder and is frustrated. Clear lines of what is acceptable and what is not must be drawn; those expectations for decent treatment must be communicated clearly, including around the issue of refusing to collude with delusional thinking (compromising one’s own needs) because of the person’s paranoia or fear.

Practicing self-care. For therapists and partners alike, this one is paramount! Dealing with this disorder is exhausting and sometimes heart-breaking. Those in close relationships (whether intimate or therapeutic) with paranoid individuals must have regular, solid habits of self-care. All the usual practices go into this category: relaxation/meditation, exercise, decent diet, support systems activated, and perhaps journalling or creative work to vent frustrations. Particularly for partners of those with PPD or a delusional disorder, maintaining a healthy social life — not allowing oneself to become isolated — is important.

Don’t abandon own stance, but empathise with their fear. If either the partner of the paranoid person or you, as therapist, hear an accusation that seems really “off” — totally unfounded — you can employ the tactic of empathising with the feeling, but not necessarily agreeing with the facts (though outright disagreeing doesn’t work, either). Carrie Baron, M.D., and Director of the Resilience Program at Dell Medical School in Texas, explains that consoling the person and refuting what they have said will not likely alter any paranoid convictions or delusions. What works better is “observation, reflection, curiosity and openness without judgment”, which lead to better understanding (Barron, 2016). Thus, the partner could say to the paranoid person, “I can imagine you’re worried if you think that the inheritance you counted on for your retirement might be taken away through your dad marrying. Have you observed any behaviour that made you question her motives?” (curiosity). However they do it, partners of people with any form of paranoia must look beneath the surface before getting swept up in the partner’s claims (Barron, 2016).

Recognise that the paranoid person can still contribute to life. Because of the fact that mild or moderate forms of paranoia are circumscribed, showing up only in particular thoughts and delusions, only those involved or accused may be aware of the psychopathology of the condition. The person can thus contribute to family life, work, and aspects of social life in positive ways, which you as therapist can help highlight for the partner.

Having either a client or a client’s partner who is paranoid is not easy, but the worst heartbreak and chaos can be avoided if the person can engage treatment, including medication when necessary.

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.(5th Edition). Washington, DC.: APA.
  2. Barron, C. (2016). 7 Tips for coping with a paranoid partner. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  3. Bourgeois, J. (2017). Delusional disorder. Medscape. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.
  4. Everyday Health. (n.d.) Coping with paranoia in a loved one. Everyday Health. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  5. Mental Health America. (n.d.). Paranoia and delusional disorders. Mental Health America. Retrieved on 6 December, 2018, from: Website.
  6. Navarrro, J. (2016). The paranoid partner: Identifying the paranoid personality in relationships. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  7. Nowak, L. (2018). Paranoid personality disorder and relationships: Moving past fear, together. Bridges to Recovery. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  8. Sunrise House. (2018). Is there a difference between paranoia and delusional disorders? American Addiction Centers. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.
  9. WebMD. (2018). Paranoid personality disorder. WebMD LLC. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.

Self-sabotage is self-sabotaging. Why would anyone do this?Self-sabotage is self-sabotaging. Why would anyone do this?

As I always like to say, there are as many reasons why people self-sabotage as there are people. A common theme is to protect the self from failure, feeling things we don’t want to feel, and to control our experiences.

One of the hidden culprits behind self-sabotage is the need for perfection and control. Self-sabotage has a strange way of helping us maintain the illusion that if only we had put in more effort or had better circumstances, everything would have worked out as it should. Social psychologists call this counter-intuitive strategy of regulating self-esteem ‘self-handicapping.’ It’s very seductive to engage in self-sabotage because the hidden payoff is high. It’s often easier to be a perfect whole rather than a real part. It’s a short-term solution that sidesteps the more arduous but ultimately more fulfilling work of individuation and self-realization. It takes risk, patience, suffering, and ultimately wisdom to come to the place where you can let go of self-sabotage and learn how to be real.

Behaviour is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems in daily life and interferes with long-standing goals. The most common self-sabotaging behaviors include procrastination, self-medication with alcohol and other drugs, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting.

Self-sabotage originates in the internal critic we all have, the side that has been internalized by the undermining and negative voices we’ve encountered in our lives. This critic and ‘internal sabotuer,’ functions to keep the person from risking being hurt, shamed, or traumatized in the ways they had been in the past. While it keeps the individual safe, it does so at a very high cost, foreclosing the possibility of new, creative, and three-dimensional experiences. Like an addiction, self-sabotage insidiously lulls and deludes us into thinking that it has the answer. In fact, it is the problem masquerading as the solution. Nothing stops self-sabotage faster in its tracks than shining this particular light on it. Consciousness is true power. We need to let go of our illusions of omnipotence and perfection and see that it is only when we are real and imperfect that we can create a true work of art. Then and only then we can enjoy the gifts of being Real.

– Michael Alcée, Ph.D., Relational therapist/ Clinical psychologistArt: Bawa Manjit, Acrobat

Self-Sabotage | Psychology Today Australia

OCD: tips for self-managementOCD: tips for self-management

People living with obsessive-compulsive disorder are encouraged to follow three general tips for effective self-management. They are: challenge the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours (this includes use of distraction skills, and resisting the compulsion), maintain high self-care (you may need to put your needs first a lot – this is NOT selfishness or self-centredness), and reaching out for support. I want to clarify that I am not trained or qualified in OCD treatment – this is an extract from an article posted on the Australian Institute of Professional Counselling website.

The following information has been retrieved from AIPC Article Library | Self-help Strategies for OCD and OCPD. I think it’s also important to reinforce that if you have been living with OCD for years, you’re probably the expert on what is already most effective for you, and some of the following suggestions may make you roll your eyes. It can be very helpful/useful to talk to other people who live with OCD. They may understand your experience better than health workers, and this can be comforting, validating and healing.

Challenge the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. In addition to refocusing, the OCD client can learn to recognise and reduce stress. Some of the strategies here are counter-intuitive. You can urge clients to “go with the flow” by writing down obsessive thoughts, anticipating OCD urges, and creating “legitimate” worry periods. Tell them to:

Write down your obsessive thoughts or worries. Keep a pen and pad, laptop, tablet, or smartphone nearby. When the obsessive thoughts come, simply write them down. Keep writing as the urges continue, even if all you are doing is repeating the same phrases over and over. Writing helps you see how repetitive the obsessions are and also causes them to lose their power. As writing is harder than thinking, the obsessive thoughts will disappear sooner.

Anticipate OCD urges. You can help ease compulsive urges before they arise by anticipating them. For example, if you are a “checker” subtype, you can pay extra attention the first time you lock the window or turn off the jug, combining the action with creating a solid mental picture of yourself doing the action, and simultaneously telling yourself, “I can see that the window is now locked.” Later urges to check can then be more easily re-labelled as “just an obsessive thought”.

Create an OCD worry period. Rather than suppressing obsessions or compulsions, reschedule them. Give yourself one or two 10-minute “worry periods” each day, times you are allowed to freely devote to obsessing. During the periods, you are to focus only on negative thoughts or urges, without correcting them. At the end of the period, let the obsessive thoughts go and return to normal activities. The rest of the day is to be free of obsessions and compulsions. When the urges come during non-worry periods, write them down and agree to postpone dealing with them until the worry period. During the worry time, read the list and assess whether you still want to obsess on the items in it or not.

Create a tape of your OCD obsessions. Choose a specific worry or obsession and record it into a voice recorder, laptop or smartphone, recounting it exactly as it comes into your mind. Play the recording back to yourself over and over for a 45-minute period each day, until listening to it no longer causes you to feel highly distressed. This continuous confrontation of the obsession helps you to gradually become less anxious. When the anxiety of one worry has decreased significantly, you can repeat the exercise for a different obsession (Robinson et al, 2013).

Maintain good self-care. A healthy, balanced lifestyle plays an important role in managing OCD and the attendant anxiety (generally present with OCD, even though the disorder is no longer classified as an “anxiety disorder” per se), so the helpfulness of the following practices – truly not rocket science – cannot be underscored. Encourage OCD clients to:

  • Practice relaxation techniques, for at least 30 minutes a day, to avoid triggering symptoms.
  • Adopt healthy eating habits, beginning with a good breakfast followed by frequent small meals – with much whole grain, fruit and vegetable – throughout the day to avoid blood sugar lows and to boost serotonin.
  • Exercise regularly; it’s a natural anti-anxiety treatment. Get 30 minutes plus of aerobic activity most days.
  • Avoid alcohol and nicotine, as these increase anxiety after the initial effects wear off.
  • Get enough sleep; a lack of it exacerbates anxious thoughts and feelings (Robinson et al, 2013).

Reach out for support. Staying connected to family and friends is the best defense an OCD client can muster against intrusive obsessions and compulsive urges, because social isolation exacerbates symptoms. Talking about worries and urges makes them seem less threatening. Also, involving others in one’s treatment can help maintain motivation and guard against setbacks. To help remind the client that s/he is not alone in the struggle with OCD, ask him or her to consider joining a support group, where personal experiences are shared and attendees also learn from others facing similar problems.

OCPD: Self-help strategies for survival

For both the person diagnosed with OCPD and also for his family and friends, dealing with this disorder requires patience, compassion, and fortitude. To start with, the ego-syntonic nature of OCPD means that the person does not necessarily agree that he has anything wrong at all. For those who staunchly continue to insist that their relational problems arise because of others’ faults, treatment is complicated. Given the OCPD’s general world view of “I am correct; you are wrong”, the prognosis for change is often poor. Transformation is likely to occur only when the OCPD’s relational skills and outlook are shifted. This is not a job for medication (at least not for long and not alone), and yet psychotherapy is not always available. When it is, the OCPD is not always willing to avail himself of it.

Regardless of this less-than-ideal context for managing OCPD, there are some things that the client himself and also friends and family can do to alleviate some of the tension and conflict that goes with living with the disorder. As a therapist, you can encourage the client and those around him to utilise some of these strategies.

Bibliotherapy. It’s a good idea to read up on OCPD, not only in order to know what to expect, but also for tips in dealing with it. Your client may also come upon writings that link some behaviours and lifestyle choices to the disorder in ways not understood before. When comprehension deepens, so, too, does the prospect of compassion.

Gentle confrontation (agreed beforehand). While we agree that OCPD clients have a mammoth need to be right, those clients who truly seek to feel better may be willing to make agreements with family and friends in which OCPD behaviours, when noticed, are gently challenged; the operative word here is gently.

Self-insight through journalling or tape-recording. We noted above that many OCPD clients are intelligent, sensitive people. Thus, keeping a diary or making voice recordings to note anything upsetting, anxiety-provoking, overwhelming, or depressing is a step toward the self-insight that will eventually help to manage the disorder. Too, family and friends may agree to note their observations and share them in a constructive, non-confrontational manner.

Good self-care. OCPD is a disorder about exaggerated need for control, so keeping on an emotional even keel can help reduce the unconscious need to micro-manage all of life. Strategies to achieve this are listed above under Tip 2 for maintaining self-care with OCD. They revolve around the basic life efforts of practicing relaxation techniques, adopting healthy eating and exercise regimens, getting decent sleep, and avoiding excessive alcohol/drug consumption (the last is not hard for the OCPD).

Reaching out for help. OCPD individuals tend to be loners, and relationships are hard for them to build and maintain. Nevertheless, it is helpful to the ultimate reduction of OCPD-engendered tension to go for support. This can be in the form of self-help groups, informal support from partner, family, and friends, or even from joining online communities of people dealing with the disorder. Whatever the form of the support, it may be helpful for OCPD clients to own their places of dysfunction when they see others owning their imperfect humanness – and surviving (Robinson et al, 2013)!

References

  • Long, P. (2011). Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. Internet mental health. Retrieved on 18 April, 2013, from: hyperlink.
  • Robinson, L., Smith, M., & Segal, J. (2013). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Symptoms and treatment of compulsive behaviour and obsessive thoughts. Helpguide.org. Retrieved on 24 April, 2013, from: hyperlink.

The ‘Triune Brain’ theory by Neuroscientist Paul MacLean — an evolutionary perspectiveThe ‘Triune Brain’ theory by Neuroscientist Paul MacLean — an evolutionary perspective

The Concept of the "Triune Brain"

In the 1960s, American neuroscientist Paul MacLean formulated the ‘Triune Brain’ model, which is based on the division of the human brain into three distinct regions. MacLean’s model suggests the human brain is organized into a hierarchy, which itself is based on an evolutionary view of brain development. The three regions are as follows:

  1. Reptilian or Primal Brain (Basal Ganglia)
  2. Paleomammalian or Emotional Brain (Limbic System)
  3. Neomammalian or Rational Brain (Neocortex)

At the most basic level, the brainstem (Primal Brain) helps us identify familiar and unfamiliar things. Familiar things are usually seen as safe and preferable, while unfamiliar things are treated with suspicion until we have assessed them and the context in which they appear. For this reason, designers, advertisers, and anyone else involved in selling products tend to use familiarity as a means of evoking pleasant emotions.

Inattentional Blindness: What else are we missing?Inattentional Blindness: What else are we missing?

Inattentional Blindness is the failure to notice an unexpected object in a visual display.

Cognitive Psychology is an approach to understanding human cognition by observing behaviour of people performing cognitive tasks. It is concerned with the internal processes involved in making sense of our environment, and deciding what behaviour to be appropriate. These processes include attention, perception, learning, memory, language, problem-solving, reasoning, and thinking.

Re-write: Distract!

The most famous experiment that shows evidence for inattentional blindness is the Simons and Chabris (1999) experiment where an audience or viewer watches a group of people pass a ball to one another wearing either black or white, and a woman dressed as a gorilla enters the frame for 9 seconds, then walks off. Results reported that 50% of the observers did not notice the gorilla enter the frame. In all honesty, when I saw the video for the first time at university, I did not see the gorilla enter the frame either.

In reality, we are often aware of changes in our visual environment because we detect motion cues accompanying the change. This information suggests that our ability to detect visual changes is not only due to the detection of movement. An obvious explanation of the gorilla experiment findings is that the visual representations we form in our mind are sparse and incomplete because they depend on our limited attentional focus. Simons and Rensick (2005) point out that there are other explanations, such as: detailed and complete representations may exist initially but may either decay rapidly or be overwritten by a subsequent stimulus. It needs to be said that in the gorilla experiment, the observers are instructed to count how many times the ball passes, so really, our attention is deliberately compromised. The real-life implications of inattentional blindness reveals the role of selective attention in human perception. Inattentional blindness represents a consequence of this critical process that allows us to remain focused on important aspects of our world without distraction from seemingly irrelevant objects and events.

Being present, in the moment (mindfulness) can help aid our attention. Distractions such as using our mobile phones, advertising material, other people, “multi-tasking” and internal emotional states all contribute to our lack of focus and attention. Think of a magician’s ability to manipulate their audiences attention in order to prevent them from seeing how a trick is performed. There are also safety implications, as you would know … if you’ve been paying attention, haha.

Just food for thought, my readers, and friends 🙂

Understanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destructionUnderstanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destruction

What is meant by self-harm?

Self-harm is any behaviour that involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself without the intention to end your life. Self-harm can include behaviours such as cutting, burning or hitting oneself, binge-eating or starvation, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations. It can also involve abuse of drugs or alcohol, including overdosing on prescription medications. Self-harm is usually a response to distress, whether it be from mental illness, trauma, or psychological pain. Some people find that the physical pain of self-harm helps provide temporary relief from emotional pain (extract from Self harm (lifeline.org.au)).

People who engage in self-harm will profess that they have no intention of dying and that their self-harming behaviour is a coping strategy, however, there are incidents of accidental suicide. The act of self-harm can develop into an obsessive-compulsion experience which can be very difficult to stop, like addiction, without outside intervention. This can result in feelings of hopelessness and possible suicidal thinking. Like building a tolerance to a drug, when self-injury does not relieve the tension or help control negative thoughts and feelings, the person may injure themselves more severely or may start to believe they can no longer control their pain and may consider suicide.

The following extract by Tracy Alderman Ph.D explains the physiological response to physical pain:

“Physiologically, endorphins are released when we are injured or stressed. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that act similarly to morphine and reduce the amount of pain we experience when we are hurt. Joggers often report experiencing a “runners high” when reaching a physically stressful period. This “high” is the physiological reaction to the release of endorphins – the masking of pain by a substance that mimics morphine. When people self-injure, the same process takes place. Endorphins are released which limit or block the amount of physical pain that’s experienced. Sometimes people who intentionally hurt themselves will even say that they felt a “rush” or “high” from the act. Given the role of endorphins, this makes perfect sense” (Oct 22, 2009).

Please click on the link for the full article Myths and Misconceptions of Self-Injury: Part II | Psychology Today Australia

The first step is to distinguish between self-harming and suicidal behaviour by paying attention to a person’s underlying motivation. When working with self-harming behaviour it is important to remember that this behaviour serves a purpose. In collaboration with the client, try to identify what problem self-harm solves for the client. For example, from the client’s perspective:

  • To make me feel real (counteracts dissociation)
  • To punish me (temporarily lessens guilt or shame)
  • To stop me from feeling (when strong feelings are too dangerous)
  • To mark the body (to show externally the internal scars)
  • To let something bad out (symbolic way to try to get rid of shame, pain, etc.)
  • To remember
  • To keep from hurting someone else (to control my behaviour and my anger)
  • To communicate (to let someone know how bad the pain is)
  • To express anger indirectly (to punish someone without getting them angry at me)
  • To reclaim control of the body (this time I’m in charge)
  • To feel better

Tips for helping yourself in the moment
It can be hard for people who self-harm to stop it by themselves. That’s why it’s important to get further help if needed; however, the ideas below may be helpful to start relieving some distress:

  • Intense exercise for 30 seconds, 30 second break, repeat, up to 15 minutes – Exercising intensely will help your body mitigate unpleasant energy that can sometimes be stored from strong emotions. Transfer this energy by running, walking at a fast pace, doing jumping jacks, etc. Exercise naturally releases endorphins which will help combat any negative emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness.
  • Delay — put off self-harming behaviours until you have spoken to someone.
  • Distract — do some exercise, go for a walk, play a game, do something kind for yourself, play loud music or use positive coping strategies.
  • Deep breathing — or other relaxation methods.
  • Cool your body temperature – Cooler temperatures decrease your heart rate (which is usually faster when we are emotionally overwhelmed). You can either splash your face with cold water, take a cold (but not too cold) shower, or if the weather outside is chilly you can go outside for a walk. Another idea is to take an ice cube and hold it in your hand or rub your face with it.
  • Listen to loud music
  • Call someone you trust or one of the services available like LifeLine 13 11 14, MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 and BeyondBlue 1300 22 4636 [see below].
  • You could write an email to yourself to express your emotions, or journal your feelings, if that’s something that might be effective for you.
  • Watch humorous Youtube clips

New, healthier coping strategies may not be as effective as the one you’re trying to replace so it may take practice. Bring lots of compassion to yourself, okay.

You may find that some of these strategies work in some situations but not others, or you may find that you need to use a combination of these. It’s important to find what works for you. Also, remember that these are not long-term solutions to self-harm but rather, useful short-term alternatives for relieving distress.

Mental health services infographic

Polyvagal Theory and Trauma – Dr. Stephen PorgesPolyvagal Theory and Trauma – Dr. Stephen Porges

Stephen Porges, psychiatry professor and researcher, on the polyvagal theory he developed to understand our reactions to trauma:

[Paraphrased] Polyvagal theory articulates three branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that evolved from primitive vertebrates to mammals. First, there is a system known as ‘freeze’, which involves death feigning or immobilisation. Second, the ANS has a ‘fight or flight’ system, which is a mobilisation system. And third, with mammals, there is what Porges calls, a social engagement system (SES), which can detect features of safety, and actually communicate them to another. The SES may also be referred to by some as ‘rest and digest’, which Porges theory suggests is a function of the Vagus Nerve – the tenth cranial nerve, a very long and wandering nerve that begins at the medulla oblongata. When an individual experiences feelings of safety (within an SES state), the autonomic nervous system can support health restoration. In terms of dealing with a life threat, an ordinary person will most likely go into a feigning death, dissociative state of ‘freeze’.

Polyvagal theory in psychotherapy offers emotional co-regulation as an interactive process between therapist and client which engages the social engagement system of both therapist and client. Social engagement provides experiences of safety, trust, mutuality and reciprocity in which we are open to receiving another person, just as they are.

The following extract has been retrived from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/02/stephen-porges-interview-survivors-are-blamed-polyvagal-theory-fight-flight-psychiatry-ace

Polyvagal theory has made inroads into medical and psycho-therapeutic treatment, but how should it inform how people treat each other?


“When we become a polyvagal-informed society, we’re functionally capable of listening to and witnessing other people’s experiences, we don’t evaluate them. Listening is part of co-regulation: we become connected to others and this is what I call our biological imperative. So when you become polyvagal-informed you have a better understanding of your evolutionary heritage as a mammal. We become aware of how our physiological state is manifested, in people’s voices and in their facial expression, posture and basic muscle tone. If there’s exuberance coming from the upper part of a person’s face, and their voice has intonation modulation or what’s called prosody, we become attracted to the person. We like to talk to them – it’s part of our co-regulation.

So when we become polyvagal-informed, we start understanding not only the other person’s response but also our responsibility to smile and have inflection in our voice, to help the person we’re talking to help their body feel safe.”

Clink on the link below to hear Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading experts on developmental trauma, explain how our long-term health and happiness can be compromised by prior exposure to violence, emotional abuse, and other forms of traumatic stress.

https://youtu.be/53RX2ESIqsM

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